After a comeback victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers aimed for a repeat performance in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. This time, however, the 25-point hole they dug themselves in was far too deep to climb out of, as they ultimately lost by six points to the New York Knicks.
It’s been a theme of the Lakers’ season, that they either start slow before picking things up and mounting a comeback that may or may not result in a win or taking a big lead early before losing it late. In fact, 13 of the Lakers’ 19 games have featured a lead or deficit of at least 14 points and only one – the win over the Miami Heat – was within single digits all game.
The Lakers have not displayed the effort or ability or focus to put together consistently complete performances over four quarters and that has, besides injuries, been the team’s biggest weakness over the first quarter of the season. That was a major topic of discussion post-game as multiple players and head coach Frank Vogel lamented those recurring problems.
“We have to have better starts,” said Vogel to the media after the loss despite praising the team fighting to get back into the game. “The last two games, we’re playing uphill, and that makes things difficult.”
Lakers fans will, of course, point to Vogel’s starting lineups as a cause of the poor starts. Despite using several different iterations due to injuries, suspensions, and experimentation, it’s a valid criticism of the third-year Lakers head coach. The team is currently employing two players – DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley – whose positive attributes seem to be heavily outweighed by their negatives within the starting unit.
That will theoretically change at some point; LeBron James is slated to be back on Wednesday after his one game suspension and Vogel tipped his hand that Trevor Ariza is likely to start when he returns from injury, whenever that may be. Until then, though, Vogel’s decisions with the starting lineup are a direct contributor to the team’s early struggles, though not the only cause of them.
Avery Bradley blamed the struggles on the team’s tendency to switch on or off, especially on the defensive end of the floor:
“We can’t just turn it on and off,” said the shooting guard after his 15-point display. “We’re not good enough for that yet.”
Russell Westbrook echoed those same sentiments, maintaining that it made a “significant difference” when the team simply played harder.
These words can, of course, ring hollow. Not only are they pretty simplistic platitudes about a team that has struggled in nearly every department, but they imply the existence of an easy fix that the Lakers simply refuse to do. In either case, none of the statements do much to ease the concerns of Lakers fans how just saw the team show the capability of holding the Knicks to just 43 second half points in their home arena but is unable to maintain that level of effort and focus for much longer than one half.
There are members of this Lakers team who thrive off of defense from their head coach to their superstar generational big man to a role player like Bradley. And yet, whether it’s as a result of the incapability of the rest of the roster, the buy in from other players, or the inability of the coach to adjust to his personnel or get his ideas and schemes across to new players, we have just not seen anything remotely close to what the last two years of Lakers basketball has shown on the defensive end.
So while it may be a positive sign to see acknowledgement of the team’s effort level – and make no mistake that it is not only an issue on the defensive side of the ball – it truly means nothing until the players from the top to the bottom of the roster correct it and the coach adjusts to the less-than-ideal personnel he was given.